Thursday, July 27, 2006

Staying Through Another Hurricane Season

I'll be teaching here at Tulane for another semester. I had made it as a finalist at a Mid-Atlantic school, but lost out to the competition. However, I do have enough of a job here teaching that with perhaps a little supplementary work, I'll be ok for the rest of the year. I've been working a bit of contract archaeology, and it has been better than the Calcasieu Parish work I talked about in a previous post.

My dissertation work has been on hold somewhat for a couple of weeks, due to the preparation, travelling, and aftermath of the job interview, as well as working for a living. But tomorrow will be my last day doing contract for a while, as I bang out the final parts of the dissertation, and prepare to teach this fall.

I have also had to revise some of my previous work. Not change the analysis or results, but rather modify some of my classification to bring it in line with more traditional and accepted classification schemes. Most of the changes, which I hammered out with my advisor, will make the classification easier to understand and possibly more useful.

It will be nice to be teaching again. The last few years, I've either been just writing, or running the Center for Archaeology. Now at least I can tell people "I teach at Tulane" and that will make a lot more sense than "I'm writing a book" or "I part-time run an archaeology lab." It's a job that people intuitively understand. The class will be a cultural anthropology course, for which I got some of the best reviews I've gotten teaching. I've revamped my syllabus, added a new ethnography on American street culture and illicit trade.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I Never Meant to be a Colonialist Student, or Both Sides of the Pipil

My training is as a Mesoamericanist, and specifically a Mayanist. And yet, my dissertation work is on the Spanish domination of the Pipil, a Nahua people in southeastern Mesoamerica. This was quite a shift, and this had two implications for my studies.

The first was that I had a lot of catching up to do, and this delayed my full participation in the Ciudad Vieja project. I had to learn the basics of colonial/historical archaeology. One element of this self-training was to school myself in the artifacts, and especially the ceramics, of the early Spanish empire. Assuming I would be working on Classic Maya subroyal issues, I had never even considered learning about colonial artifacts, a bias common in my field. Likewise, I had to learn a lot more about the historical unfolding of the Spanish invasion of Central America, and what kinds of questions had been fruitfully addressed using archaeological remains from the colonial era.

I should mention that in the beginning, my reasons for undertaking this study were mixed. In part, I had been impressed by what I had seen of the site when the director came to Tulane in 1998 and gave a talk about it. The site preservation and the potential for good archaeology, as well as Dr. Fowler's enthusiasm, made it an attractive project. But the site would also further my agenda. Starting in my undergraduate years at the University of Pittsburgh, I became fascinated with Maya writing. Not in the sense that I wanted to study the writing system and its epigraphic or linguistic complexities. But rather, I took to reading the glyphs with some talent, and I saw so much potential in the one major literate society of the Precolumbian Americas. The relationship between this kind of history and archaeology dominated my thinking in early grad school. I wanted to study a subroyal Maya center, ruled by what the texts called a sahal or roughly a sublord or governor. I figured if a site could be identified with records of a sahal, the thing to do would be to study the archaeology, and see what exactly a sahal and their territory was all about. I was not able to pull together a project to do this, so when Ciudad Vieja came along, I saw an opportunity. Not just to get moving, though that was also in play, but to do a full dissertation study of early historical archaeology in Mesoamerica, so that when I returned to Maya studies and wanted to consider them historical archaeology, I'd know what I was talking about. And in 1998-1999, historical archaeology was something of a real anomaly in Mesoamerica (more on that below).

At the same time, I also found myself moving into studying the Pipil. As I have learned through analysis of the ceramics and the historical record, it is likely that a substantial number of the Mesoamericans who lived in early San Salvador were from Mexico or possibly Guatemala. But the town was clearly in and supported by the resident Pipil population. This meant learning what there was to know about Pipil archaeology. With the exception of the early possible Pipil site of Cihuatan, there wasn't much. In addition to studying what has been published, I consulted and worked with experts in Pipil archaeology (ok, there are about four) to learn what I could.

This task wasn't as foreign to me. In addition to the Pipil being Mesoamericans, I had already covered some of this ground in 1997-1998. I worked on another archaeological project, excavating a small public platform in the northern plaza of the major site of Campana San Andres. I won't get into the details here, but my research found a likelihood that the platform I uncovered, as well as an episode of architectural repair elsewhere on the site, was possibly after a temporary abandonment of San Andres, and possibly contemporary with Cihuatan. I undertook some research, and determined that this occupation was probably not Pipil. Now, having learned a lot more about the Pipil, I'm not so sure, though I don't have the data to really answer the question without additional investigation.

Excavations at Campana San Andres

This change in my opinion on San Andres shouldn't come as a surprise at this point. One of the constants of my work in the last few years is that as I take my data and really apply a lot of thought and research to it, many of my earlier notions fall by the wayside. Not all of them. And in some cases, my initial hypotheses about Ciudad Vieja were correct to a point, but the story ended up being much more complex and productive than I had expected.

So I came to the Ciudad Vieja project trained as Mayanist and more generally a Mesoamericanist. I had substantial field experience working on an architectural component that may have been contemporary with the earliest evidence for the Pipil in El Salvador. And now, I was going to study the other end of the Pipil story, the beginning of the colonial period starting with the Spanish invasion. So I figured that my Mesoamericanist training would be of some value, and add an interesting viewpoint to the work. But that I had better look to the archaeology of the Spanish empire to understand the issues of Ciudad Vieja and its ceramic artifacts.

Once again, my initial ideas didn't hold. As I will talk about down the road, historical and colonial archaeology in Mesoamerica is a very different proposition than in say the Caribbean or North America, where much of the methodology and theory has been created. The complexity, but especially the scale, of Mesoamerican societies, as well as the much more detailed archaeological and cultural literature and study of Mesoamerica, means that this region has some of its own rules. I'll talk about this in another post in the future, but I'm not the only one by any stretch of the imagination to treat Mesoamerica very differently when it comes to colonial studies, and the data support this emphasis.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Effect of My Dissertation Studies on My View of the World

One somewhat unexpected element of my research over the last several years has been how my view of the world, and particularly the legacy of history, has changed as a result. Of course, current events on a global to a personal scale have worked their ways on my mind. But it seems impossible to study the physical evidence of colonialism, and to figure out what it all means, without that informing a few things.

As discussed in a previous post, Ciudad Vieja dates to the very beginning of European colonialism in the Americas. In order to study Ciudad Vieja, I have had to really understand more of that legacy. And while I never set out with this in mind, that process has changed my views on more recent history, and why life in the Americas is what it is today. For example, a story on reparations for enslaving African-Americans looks a lot different to me today, after having examined the evidence for what happens to people that are enslaved and uprooted, than it did only a few years ago. Of course, other events, like the destruction of New Orleans and the laying bare of the structural inequities that can sometimes be less than obvious, have played their part. But I know that my work has also infected my brain.

Likewise, living and travelling in Central America has impacted my beliefs and ideas on topics including transnationalism, globalization, social safety nets, and all sorts of issues that I might not have paid as much mind to a few years ago. In a way, I see this as a benefit of doing research in a field science. Even though I worked in a lab/garage for most of my research, the simple matter of travelling and living elsewhere in order to do so, of breaking up my life into bits time and again, has been valuable. Add in that my work touches on subjects for understanding the world as it has become, and that's a powerful combination.

On the other hand, I don't intend my work to be political in nature. With the exception of a few asides and perhaps how I shade some issues, there is no explicit political element in my dissertation. Because it's a dissertation about ceramic artifacts, about the early sixteenth-century of Central America. That doesn't mean it is apolitical. But rather, it is a piece of what we know about the world, and in this case, mostly about the past nearly five hundred years ago. And reality is political, despite opposition to the contrary. Or rather, politics is how we deal with reality in relationship to other people.

Of course, it is when I say these sorts of things that respectable people look at me funny, even funnier than when I try to explain the pottery to them. So perhaps I shouldn't say them too often.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Brief Pause: Archaeological Survey Work in Lake Charles, LA

I've been working for actual money, the last couple of days, doing contract archaeology on the outskirts of Lake Charles, Louisiana. A road is to be widened or straightened or otherwise modified, and my team went to do some survey to see if there was any evidence of important archaeological resources that could be damaged by construction.

Thorns. Lots of thorns. And brambles, and fallen trees, and thick thick secondary undergrowth. Wading through creeks, clambering around on large tree trunks, and other somewhat hazardous activities. Despite these obstacles in some of the thickest vegetation I've seen, the rain and thunder, and some technical difficulties, the work went as planned. The clothes I had weighed a good 3-4 pounds more than they started, due to water and mud, and my hiking boots may not be the same again. What was really bizarre about this is that we were never more than a few hundred meters from a highway, or from a strip mall, though you'd never know it from the lack of visibility and dense undergrowth.

So, tomorrow I go back to the library and return to my studies and writing. I'll likely be doing some more of this work, which is very unglamorous, and very different than the type of academic archaeology I am used to doing. I've done CRM (cultural resource management) before, but not for eight years, and not since I've gained a much firmer understanding of archaeology by doing my dissertation work. It's a very different sort of activity.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Ciudad Vieja: An overview

As tempting as it would be to repost substantial chunks of my dissertation, in small doses, I'm not sure how that would work in regards to publication in the future.

So, what I'll post here is shorter summaries of my findings, as well as some insight into the actual process of research.

The name Ciudad Vieja refers to an archaeological site located 10 km south of Suchitoto, El Salvador. A number of archaeologists have worked on this site since the 1970s, but the largest amount of excavation, analysis, and study has occured since 1996 as the Ciudad Vieja Archaeological Project, directed by Dr. William Fowler of Vanderbilt University. I joined this project in 1999 as an excavator, but primarily as the project ceramicist, and my research forms the basis of my dissertation in Tulane University's anthropology doctoral program.

This site is the physical location and remains of the second villa (town) of San Salvador. Founded in 1528, six years after the first Spaniards cruised along the coast of what is now El Salvador, and three years after Spanish and Mexican forces commanded by the Alvarado family, this is the first permanent Spanish-controlled settlement in El Salvador. It is located in the northern edges of what had been the altepetl of Cuscatlan. An altepetl, a Nahuatl word meaning hill and water, was considered a proper place and polity, typically with a substantial town or city at the center. A small kingdom would be an altepetl with smaller communities subject to it, while larger cities and states could incorporate multiple altepetl. Ethnohistorian James Lockhart has done a lot of work on the atepetl amongst the Nahua of Central Mexico, cultural and linguistic cousins of the Pipil.

The Pipil were the main political and ethnic group in El Salvador in the early sixteenth century, and it was they who fielded troops to fight the invading Spaniards and Mexicans. They soon learned that open warfare against Spanish cavalry was suicide, and took to a solution used throughout Mesoamerica in the face of an overwhelming force: retreat to a high point. This shift to settlements on hilltops can be seen throughout Mesoamerica after the fall of Teotihuacan and later the Classic Maya cities, and the Spaniards wrote about the problems they had bringing hostile Mesoamericans down from these penoles during the sixteenth century.

I may revisit at later dates some of the historical events recorded for the villa of San Salvador, but it should be mentioned now that sometime around 1545, the town was abandoned as San Salvador was given the license to expand to a full city, and to move to its present location about 33 km to the south-southwest. The implications for the archaeology of Ciudad Vieja is that it presumably represents a single generation (17 years or so) of time, and the first generation of the Spanish invasion, conquest, and colonization of Central America.

This has influenced my research design from the very beginning. In some ways even more than history, archaeology has two major variables: time and space. Archaeology has adopted a tremendous amount from geography in order to deal with space. But for time, archaeology has turned to geology, art history, and chemistry amongst other sciences, adapting techniques from these fields. I have applied some of these techniques (though not chemical techniques such as radiocarbon decay dating) to Ciudad Vieja with surprising success. But with the expectation that the site's occupation would be fairly short in archaeological terms, my attention turned to issues of use of ceramic vessels as tools, and as communication devices.

Now, why the obsession with ceramics? Ceramics have been studied probably more than any kind of portable (leaving out architecture) type of material culture from archaeological sites. Stone tools have a much deeper antiquity, but once a culture produces ceramic vessels, they typically produce a lot of them, in part because clay and other ingredients are usually closer at hand than particularly good stone for tools. Fired ceramic vessels can break into fragments, but on the scale of archaeological time, they generally don't break down further, and so they preserve in trash dumps and in forgotten corners of buildings. Also, they often incorporate plastic or painted decorative or stylistic elements, in addition to having attributes relating to their use as cooking or serving or storage containers. Borrowing from art history, archaeologists have long realized that these stylistic elements change through time, and for many sites and archaeological cultures, ceramic fragments form the chronological backbone for understanding the rest of the site. They also were tools, used in a number of different contexts for different activities, and can provide information about these activities. Some of those contexts and functions have social and cultural elements to them besides basic mechanical functions, and these elements have been particularly interesting to archaeologists trying to say more about past people than simply when and where they lived. Patterns in use of ceramics, or decorations on the pots, or how they were obtained and distributed, can serve as evidence for more intricate, if at times less certain, discussions of power, gender, ethnicity, class, identity, and other topics with broader interest and importance.

I'll be discussing these sorts of issues here and in my published work. But the reason for this long tangent is to point out that right from the start of my work, I knew that chronology would play an unusual role in my research. On the one hand, a short-period of occupation can be really useful. In this case, Ciudad Vieja allows myself and other researchers working on the site to investigate just the first few years of the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica. In many other cases, a colonial site is still occupied, and chronological markers are not precise enough (more on that in another post) to narrow things down much less than 50 - 100 years. So in a number of cases, the sixteenth-century is treated as the field of study for the Early Colonial period in Mesoamerica. But this is a fairly long time. During the first generation after the arrival of Europeans, some estimates suggest population dropped 90% or more in Mesoamerica and other areas of contact due to disease, disruption of economic networks, oppression, and war. Spanish colonial policies changed during this period as well, and the kinds of colonists and their institutions changed too. Our work at Ciudad Vieja cannot illustrate or serve to investigate all of that. We don't have occupation throughout this period, or as far as we can tell, immediately before the Spaniards arrived. So making "Before/After" comparisons is difficult with Ciudad Vieja data. Rather, we serve as a time capsule of a sort, of a short but incedibly crucial period in the European invasion of Mesoamerica. We don't have the whole sixteenth-century, but what we do have is a chronologically narrow slice of the sixteenth-century that allows us to say things with more certainty in comparison with other places and periods, and perhaps advance the ability of researchers elsewhere to discern these early years at other sites.

One other point that guides my research is that early San Salvador/Ciudad Vieja is part of the Mesoamerican colonial history and experience. With the exception of a few failed Norse colonies five centuries earlier, Europeans began the colonization of the Americas in 1492. Some twenty-five years later, the first attempts to control Mesoamerica began, with Hernan Cortes' expedition against the Mexica empire being ultimately successful beginning in 1519. The relatively small-scale chiefdoms of the Caribbean were a very different situation than what the Spaniards found in Mexico, and then Central America and later Peru. The people of Mesoamerica had created large urban cities for at least 1500 years before the Spaniards arrived and had been recording dates and other information for possibly 2200 years before Columbus. The cities the Spaniards found and destroyed were larger than anything they had seen at home, something they attested to often. This encounter and disaster in the early sixteenth century is near the very beginning of the period of European colonization of much of the globe, a process that would last for another four centuries and completely transform the world we now know. And in Mesoamerica, Europeans had their first encounter with a highly complex, urban, and literate society of the Americas. They often turned to their dealings with the Muslim caliphates to try and categorize what they found, or to the writings of antiquity, but this encounter would eventually have a profound effect on the European worldview and imagination, and on the global economy and balance of power.

And Ciudad Vieja is a part of the beginning of that encounter. Settled a scant seven years after the surrender of the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan, I have repeatedly returned to this fact, that the materials I am studying are the evidence of the very beginning of Europe's colonialism, the very end of prehispanic Mesoamerica, and the origins of the modern world.

Ciudad Vieja: One of the Likely Places I'll Take this Blog

I'm definitely thinking that one of the main reasons I'd like to use the blog is to present information about my archaeological work. I'll be working in the near future on something a bit more involved and synthesized for the site of Ciudad Vieja.

But I thought I might start with some initial posts on some of my findings.

Please, feel free to comment on this stuff, either with opinions on the findings and the materials, or on things you'd like to see in this regard. You can leave comments using the "comment" button at the bottom of each post. I'll be moderating comments (to keep spammers away), so they won't post immediately. If that system doesn't work, like I'm not checking it enough, I'll change it.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Items v3.0

I've decided to make the leap to blogging, in part because no matter what happens in terms of my professional life in the next year, I presume a number of things will be changing, and I'll be on the move. Regardless, I'll be leaving Tulane during that time, so staking out a net home in advance makes a lot of sense. Also, I do like the capability to have comments and threads. Please note, I am moderating comments, so I can stop spam or other unwanted intrusions.

I call this Items of Interest v3.0, for a few reasons. First, I like the name. There is already a personal blog called Items of Interest, but I've been using it for several years, so I like it. It might change at some point, or it might split.

Version 1 of Items was an email list. Version 2 was a webpage, and at one point a couple of pages but not really a "site."

For now, Items will not reflect the content of the previous versions. First off, my reasons for ending the previous incarnation of Items are still valid, and can be reviewed at the Items v2 page. I will be posting some items along those lines, but nowhere near the volume I once did.

On the other hand, this won't exactly be a journal-style blog. I'm too old for that, and my need for attention only goes so far. Well, it will be, to some degree. I'll use it to keep people up with what's going on (I especially want to start putting up more on my professional work). But this will not be a LiveJournal style diary with moods and inner thoughts and blah blah blah.

So, I'm not exactly sure what I am going to put here. I have some ideas, but I'm going to let it progress organically.